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The case for basic, public values

  • 25 January 2022
One reasonably could ask whether this is the moment to write a book about the potential of Catholic Social Theory to contribute to Australian politics and policy. After all, the Church is still struggling to come to terms with decades of child abuse, hardly a recommendation for social potential. We currently also are attempting to make sense of a Plenary that is both confused and confusing.

As Monty Python might have remarked, ‘What has the Catholic Church given us in social theory? Nothing!’ That great theologian, however, would be wrong. For better or worse, the Church is an institution, indeed the institution. Institutions get a bad rap these days, but properly understood, they are capsules of values.

What this means is that the personnel of an institution may be appalling, but the institution and its values remain intact. In the secular world, for example, we may believe that all judges are pompous asses, but still believe in judicial independence. We may opine that all legislators are overpaid idiots, yet cling to parliamentary sovereignty, and so forth.

Like the laws of the Medes and the Persians, the fundamental social values of God’s Church changeth not, regardless of massive failure by its servants. As my mother was prone to say, if you want evidence of the divine inspiration of the Catholic Church, just ponder its survival despite the Papal Pornocracy of the Middle Ages.

Our own challenge is that we live in a world, particularly in the context of government, that literally is starving for basic values to guide their policy choices. Before the launch of the book Shadow of the Cross I was rung by a high-ranking, public servant and atheist friend who was excited that anyone was even going to posit a set of basic, public values.

This value lacuna is fundamentally dangerous to our society. Without basic values, policy-making lapses into mere transactionalism: I have been told to build a dam there, so I will, regardless of environmental or indigenous concerns.

At its worst, this phenomenon intensifies. It becomes soulless game-playing. I have been told to achieve a particular policy outcome, and you are trying to stop me. My objective is to beat you, regardless of the consequences. Usually, this tendency is accompanied by name-calling, and false characterizations. You are a leftie. I am fascist. He is a lunatic.

"This value lacuna is fundamentally dangerous to our society. Without basic values, policy-making lapses into mere transactionalism."